Watching for the signs of project trouble…

You are on the beach in the tropical isle of St. Maarten. It is surprisingly quiet. In fact you seem to have most of this part of the beach all to yourself. Until ..


you find out the reason, it’s so uninhabited. Now how did you miss that sign?


Well the fact you can afford the time for a nice vacation in St. Maarten is a good sign or are you there because you errantly think you can afford the week off?

Did you miss any other signs recently?


Here are some of the real signs everyone on a project needs to look for as early-warning signs of trouble:

  • Is management direction inconsistent or missing?
  • Has the project leadership gone AWOL?
  • Is there anyone on your team unable to articulate the project’s goals?
  • Project management and business management seem disconnected?
  • The team lacks a commitment to clearly articulated and commonly understood goals?
  • Team members don’t listen to one another?
  • The team is in a state of discord?
  • Lack of Velocity?
  • Increasing number of small slippages?
  • People willing to trade quality off for schedule?
  • Resources are being temporarily diverted to urgent matters?
  • Limited stakeholder involvement and/or participation?
  • Team members lack requisite knowledge and/or skills?
  • Subject matter experts are overscheduled?
  • Weak change control process?
  • Project Status reports puzzle you?

So let’s assume you are on a project in a technical role and a number of items on the list above have occurred on the project. You have 3 options:

  1. run away 
  2. do nothing and keep billing until it blows up
  3. be part of the process to fix it

We would all like to be on projects where the Lead Project Manager is a genius. I have been on some of those projects and I have led some (:>). However, more often than not, your lead PM is imperfect and has in fact let some, many or all of the items in the early-warning list start to happen. The good news is if you really have been watching and it is in fact early in the process, most if not all of them are correctable. So let’s be part of the process to help fix it.

Propose activities to your PM to fix the trouble areas:

  • regularly scheduled team sync meeting, ensure that the first one has crisp vision, goals and objectives for the project. Nobody leaves the room until everyone has bought in and agrees on the big picture.
  • team overhaul of the schedule and give your PM some proactive trade-offs they can offer.
  • have team members contribute sections to the status reports
  • offer to have stakeholder “brown-bag” lunch sessions to get 1:1 and 1:N face time with them to discuss challenges
  • buy the SME’s and/or stakeholders breakfast, lunch or dinner. Make more hours available to talk.
  • provide off-schedule crash course technical training to team members where required – call it Advanced Features Review instead of remedial though
  • regardless of the formal organization structure, leverage your senior experienced resources to be key design and PM influencers
  • have your senior resources take responsibility for communications to their individual team areas
  • make process change recommendations where required
  • leverage your informal communication network to address issues
  • help your PM understand impact of changes
    • get the team to consolidate it
    • manage your own CM
    • make sure the impact and risks are reported to the PM in a pre-fab manner they can send forward without interpretation.

If it is done properly and professionally, the PM will appreciate your efforts. You can be a coach and valuable resource to them as well.

The end goal is always project success for your client.

I recently saw the following presented as the qualities of a good project manager.


However I was not certain why being able to chart and write letters backwards on glass should be the PM quality I would first look for.

I’d rather have one that didn’t cause all the early-warning signals to go off.

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2 Responses to Watching for the signs of project trouble…

  1. Pingback: What the bookies knew and didn’t know that consultants should still learn from today … | Infinite Shades of Grey

  2. Pingback: Infinite Shades of Grey – A year later and a little greyer | Infinite Shades of Grey

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